Malachi O Doherty’s Belfast Telegraph column from last Monday gave his view on the heist job. No friend of Sinn Fein’s, he nevertheless employs logic that “If they hadn’t done it, they would have said they hadn’t done it”.By Malachi O’Doherty
If it was proven tomorrow that the Provisional IRA did not rob the Northern Bank a lot of people would be deeply disappointed.
Among them, of course, would be the many political commentators who relish slapping the Provos about the ears because they don’t think they get have enough of what is good for them.
Among them too would be many Unionists who feel confirmed in their own virtue every time Republicans commit a sin.
But also among them would be many people who support the IRA and vote for Sinn Fein. They love the thought that the Provos did it. The bank robbery strikes them as a perfectly admirable bit of work.
As a crime it was not victimless. Ordinary decent people were brutally abused but no one was killed and the glee with which they contemplate mountains of money stolen so boldly easily glances over the traumas visited on the hostages taken.
Republicans want it to have been the Provos. It proves that they are still a better, tighter, more efficient organisation than their rivals, the Real IRA and the Continuity IRA – let alone the Loyalists.
Some might be hoping that the money will filter down to themselves but that is not the greater part of the delight they take in the biggest heist of all time. The IRA has always specialised in spectaculars and this is as spectacular as they come.
They like it too because, in a way, it has shot the Unionist’ fox.
Unionists have been thumping the table demanding verifiable decommissioning as proof of the IRA going out of business. Now it is clear that massive decommissioning, fully verified, would not necessarily mean such a thing at all.
If the Provos robbed the bank, they did it with a couple of pistols which, since they were not fired, might have been the kind that you can see in shop windows in Great Victoria Street.
Republicans like the robbery because they feel that their movement has been humbled by the peace process and that, at a stroke, all humiliation has been reversed.
You and I may speculate that enormous political damage will accrue to the Republican movement. The people who support that movement will not feel damaged at all. They are jumping over themselves backwards.
Most people, inside and outside the Republican movement, now clearly believe that the Provisionals robbed the bank.
When the IRA chose to deny it, it deliberately coined one of those ambiguous phrases it likes, which the rank-and-file recognise as saying something to them very different from what it says to the rest of the world. It was not in fact a denial at all but the dismissal of a suggestion, a refusal to discuss.
If they hadn’t done it, they would have said they hadn’t done it and the same politicians who had been condemning the firebombing of shops in the same week would have had strong words too for those who went into Poleglass and took constituents of Gerry Adams hostage.
When the news broke, some argued that it could not have been the Provos because it was against all their political interests.
Was it conceivable that they were planning this when they were in talks in December? What sense does it make politically?
Had the talks been completed and the DUP excepted decommissioning without a photograph, the robbery would have followed within the agreed decontamination period and scuppered the deal. It would also have made the DUP look pretty stupid.
Or would the Provos have behaved themselves then? Perhaps the robbery was a Canary Wharf type operation, intended to punish the governments for their failure to cement a deal on Republican terms.
Will it damage their vote? I expect it will probably lift it. Charles Kennedy should order a bank robbery too.
Will it hinder their prospects in the South? No, the Unionists will take the blame for failure to agree in the North. Decommissioning will ultimately be enough for Ahern, though it will prove nothing after this.
Anyway, there will be as many people to believe that Sinn Fein had no hand in this – that Adams and McGuinness knew nothing about it – as believe that three Republicans in Colombia were only picking daisies.
And still Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair assert that they are fully committed to talks and to efforts to close the tiny gap between Sinn Fein and the DUP so that devolution can be restored.
Why? Do they like being humiliated like this?
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty